Toronto jail tries to bring COVID-19 outbreak under control after 54 inmates test positive

The Toronto South Detention Centre is trying to bring a COVID-19 outbreak under control after 54 inmates have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Toronto South Detention Centre has isolated the infected inmates, put them under droplet precautions

The Toronto South Detention Centre says 54 inmates at the jail have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The Toronto South Detention Centre is trying to bring a COVID-19 outbreak under control after 54 inmates have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Ontario's ministry of the solicitor general said in an email on Saturday that the inmates have been isolated from other prisoners while they receive medical care and they are under droplet precautions.

Toronto Public Health is working with the jail to trace contacts of those infected. The ministry says voluntary testing is underway for correctional staff and inmates in the units where the infections appeared.

"Protecting the health and safety of correctional services staff and those in provincial custody is the ministry's top priority," the ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

To control outbreaks in jails and prisons, the ministry said it has made changes to its operations in all of its correctional facilities since the pandemic began. These changes include:

  • Testing all inmates who have just been admitted into the facilities after obtaining their consent to test.
  • Housing all newly admitted inmates in a separate area from the general population for 14 days.
  • Masks provided to inmates if required.
  • Providing personal protective equipment for all staff members.
  • Requiring all staff and visitors to wear masks at all times.
  • Requiring temperature checks for staff and visitors.
  • Working with local public health units to test inmates and staff where necessary.
  • Increased cleaning measures.

The Toronto Prisoners' Rights Project, a coalition of researchers, law students, front-line workers and people with lived experience who work to educate the public about incarceration, said the provincial government needs to take immediate action to protect inmates from the virus.

"At the onset of the pandemic, prisoners and their families, alongside community and legal organizations, sounded the alarm about the risk this pandemic poses for incarcerated people," it says on its website. 

A view of the inside of the Toronto South Detention Centre. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

"Due to existing unsanitary conditions, close quarters, frequent physical contact, and many detained people's medical history, jails and prisons pose a significant threat to our communities' health and well-being," it continues.

"Shared cells and the regular practice of overcrowding prisons present substantial challenges to practicing social distancing."

The project said prisoners across Canada have raised concerns about a lack of access to cleaning supplies, soap, gloves and masks. 

"To make matters worse, prisoners have largely been kept in the dark about how the pandemic has been unfolding leading to a heightened sense of anxiety and fear," it says.

"The groundswell of advocacy led to an unprecedented depopulation of provincial prisons across Ontario. Since then, the number of people in prisons and jails has started to increase, despite the reality that we are still amid a pandemic."

Depopulate prisons again, advocates urge province

The project is calling on the province to depopulate prisons and jails across Ontario, administer COVID-19 tests for all prisoners and staff, offer humane isolation of prisoners who test positive, ensure prisoners have personal protective equipment, ensure all prisoners are able to take daily showers, ensure all prison staff use PPE at all times and limit prison staff to one unit. 

It also wants the province to be transparent about positive cases, frequency of tests, PPE availability, isolation practices, lockdowns, employeee standards and number of deaths.

And it is calling for the province to ensure inmates have "free and accessible telecommunication" to give them access to their loved ones during the pandemic.


With files from Ieva Lucs